I have raced with a sighted guide for the past twelve years.  I have also helped pair many other blind athletes up with guides.  As the numbers of blind athletes has increased and the number of those interested in guiding also has grown, I have noticed an increasing rate of guide-athlete conflict, or some may call it drama. Of course, I’m not guilty for creating any conflict or drama, as I always keep my hands out of everything.  I have strongly considered pitching a guide/athlete reality TV show as I think this show could blow the ratings of The Bachelor out of the water.  I still need to find some silent donor that will realize the show’s true potential.  I mean, can you imagine how great it would be to have 25 malesand 25 female all vying for the coveted opportunity to wear the jersey that says GUIDE and not be counted in the race?  This show would guarantee high drama, many laughs, many objects run into and it may even be educational in showing how the athlete/guide relationship is merely identical to that of a marriage.  

Before we disclose my new role in this phenomenon, let’s look at some of the dynamics that create the conflict.  We will do this by defining and describing the blind/VI athlete and the guide separately and then looking at why they sometime clash.  You will notice that there is some stereotyping going on with each group of individuals but I have found that typically at least some of these characteristics hold true for each of these individuals.  

Group 1: Blind/VI Athlete

The blind/VI athlete has some degree of competitive nature.  They feel as though they must always prove themselves in society and this trait is sure to come out at some point.  They may become very aggressive and motivated to prove their doubters wrong or they may get angry when they feel as though others perceive them as “needing everything done for them.”  The degree to which and timing of when the competitive nature pokes its head out can be due to many factors but I believeis based on either past experiences or the extent to which the individual has come to the acceptance of their vision loss.  The competitive nature can also come out when the blind athlete has a significantly differing degree of competitive and/or aggressive nature than his/her guide.  The end result of this situation is typically frustration on the blind individual’s part as they would like change to occur but feel as though they have no power or control of the situation.  

The blind/VI athlete wants to be the best they can just like any other individual with a competitive nature.  This means that they are always going to try and seek out the best equipment to get them there.  When the athlete has their goals set on the Paralympics or elite level competition, the extent to which having the best equipment is amplified in importance to the blind athlete.  Right or wrong, the guide is often looked at as equipment.  They are “organic equipment,” but this does not mean they are without emotions and personality but rather they are a necessary tool to compete but they are not entered in the race/event directly.  The main feature in the guide that the blind athlete looks at is their athletic ability in the sport.  Other crucial features are typically overlooked which lead to problems in the future.  

The blind athlete has some expectations.  These expectations may not be discussed prior to an event .  The blind athlete expects that the guide will do the training and preparation necessary to be prepared on the day of the event to keep up with the blind athlete even on their worst day.  The blind athlete expects that their guide has agreed to fulfill their “guide” role for the entire day or weekend of the event, not just the event itself, unless they have discussed otherwise.  The blind athlete also expects and trusts that the guide will make the right decision in every situation in a race in order to keep the blind athlete safe but also have optimal performance.  That said, if the blind athlete doeshit something or fall down, the blind athlete will often times shake it off and may even blame themselves, but unfortunately others in society will always attribute anything that goes wrong to “guide error”.

Group 2: The Guide

The guide is someone that has been in a sport for a long time and is seeking out another way to give back or they are someone that loves to help others and sees guiding as a great opportunity to stay in shape as well as help someone else at the same time.  The guide does not get involved in guiding for their own self interest but as is human nature having a position of control can empower the guide to embrace this level of control.  

The guide has a very difficult role with many expectations.  Many times these expectations can become overwhelming and the way in which they are handled by the guide and the athlete can make or break the relationship.  First, the guide typically will place expectations on themselves to keep the athlete safe.  Second, the athlete has the above expectations of the guide.  Some athletes may even have more than the above expectations.  Lastly, there are unwritten expectations by society which tend to put the guide in a “no win” situation.  The guide may feel stressed or under a lot of pressure unless the guide and athlete come to an understanding that the partnership is a team effort no matter the result.  

One of the biggest challenges for the guide is that they are expected to be the eyes for the blind/VI individual even though they don’t see through those eyes.  This is a very unfair situation for the guide and often is a deal breaker in the relationship.  The guide is not blind and therefore they have been placed in a role in which they can only predict the blind athlete’s situation through their own perception of what it would be like to be blind.  This means that the guide is most likely going to give more cues than the blind individual necessarily needs.  As mentioned above, the blind individual typically has a strong desire to prove to society that they can be independent.  This means that they may take offense to the fact that they are being helped more than they really need.  If this is the case, the guide has been put in a very difficult no win situation in which they feel as though if they give too much assistance the blind athlete will become annoyed or irritated but if they don’t help enough then the blind athlete hits something and this comes back at the guide as well.  The guide is in a “Catch 22” situation and if there is not communication between the guide and blind athlete in these situations, there wil be problems.

As mentioned, the guide gets involved in guiding to help others and give back to the sport.      Over the course of their career guiding, the motives and feelings towards guiding can change. Sometimes guiding becomes the way through which the guide evaluates self worth.  Sometimesother opportunities or relationships arise as a result of their guiding experiences.  The guide often gets thrown into the public spotlight and social media.  They may or may not be comfortable with this role but it is one that they must adapt to and accept.  The guide role in the public spotlight is often a supporting and not leading role.  This is not how it should be but unfortunately is how it is.  The way in which the guide handles the above situations is critical to the relationship and success of the team.  

My New Role:

Over the last two or three years, I have been given a new role that I never could have predicted.  It seems that I am now the Dr. Phil of guide/athlete conflict, drama and relations. I have been called upon numerous times over the past few years for advice in these situations and I think I may even be able to give the real Dr. Phil a run for his money. One of the main reasons why I have a strong ability to resolve these issues is that I have been directly involved in a blind athlete/guide relationship as well as the fact that i have a good ability to look at every situation from the other person’s perspective.  With that said, I am going to give 5 truths about the blind athlete/guide relationship.  These truths may be hard to swallow for some but if looked at closely can greatly helpdetermine whether a blind athlete and guide are meant to be.  

  1. The Guide Must Be Better on their Worst Day:  As mentioned above, the guide is not technically entered in the race and if they are, it is still the blind athlete who is the primary entity in the race.  The blind athlete should never go into a race worrying about whether their guide can keep up.  In the same way, the guide should never be concerned about whether the will be able to keep up.  If this is the case, the marriage won’t work.  The blind athlete will typically move and this should be understandable.  Most people in a situation of having a heavy old mountain bike vs a light weight carbon road bike are going to pick the carbon road bike because it is more reliable.  In the case that the guide is faster than the blind athlete on their worst day but the blind athlete still chooses a different guide than many other factors come into play which may be related to the blind athlete or the guide.  Morecounseling or discussions are needed.  
  2. Accountability Goes Both Ways:  It always seems that the accountability always falls on the guide but if this is the case the relationship is doomed to fail.  The blind athlete and guide must agree upontheir goals and develop a plan.  The guide must be accountable so on their worst day they will be as strong or stronger than the blind athlete.  The blind athlete must be accountable to the pace or speed that was agreed upon in the plan.  This means that both side must commit to the training necessary to achieve the goal.  
  3. Turn Off the Independent Switch:  As blind athletes we must realize that our guides are doing the best that they can to perceive and predict the cues and assistance that we need.  This means, that they are going to give more information than is probably needed.  We need to communicate to them what cues we need and don’t need and not take offense to excessive information.  If I was a sighted guide and felt as though I was walking on egg shells every time I tried to help, I wouldn’t want to guide anymore either.  It is good to communicate what you need and what you don’t need but an athletic even is not the time in which we prove we are independent. An athletic event is where we prove how well we work as a team.  
  4. Communication is Key:  As in any relationship, communication is key.  The blind athlete and guide must communicate with each other their goals, needs, expectations and their appreciation.  All cues and commands that will be used on the bike, swim run or any other sport should be agreed upon before hand and practiced.  If one person is not comfortable with a skill or the plan going into the event than they must communicate that to the other and practice until its comfortable prior to the event.  The blind athlete must communicate the finances of the race and whether he/she will be funding the guide’s expenses or whether he or she can not afford to do so.  The guide should actively strive to educate themselves on what way they can best motivate and support the blind athlete during the event.  Feelings and emotions are good to communicate and so long as their is honesty in the communication than one should not take offense but rather value the other person’s viewpoint and honesty. 
  5. Know Your Role But Don’t Abuse It:  As guides, you must take charge and make decisions that are best for the safety and success of the team but don’t abuse this role of control.  You must listen to and value the needs of the blind athlete and then compromise through communication.  Blind athletes you must trust your guide and communicate your needs from the guide.  The blind athlete is the pace setter and the one that the spotlight is shined upon however it is essential that we never let our guides feel as though they are not appreciated or we are not grateful for all that they do.  We would never be competing without them and we must always be sure to let them know that they are just as much a part of the team as we are.  Just like in any marriage, each entity wants to feel as though they appreciated and valued.  The same holds true for the blind athlete/guide marriage!

Well, I hope the above truths have helped you further understand the relations between the blind athlete and their sighted guide.  The above ideas may not hold true for every blind athlete/guide relationship but they are the truths that I have generated from my own experiences as well as listening to those of others.  If you are having romantic relationship issues you may want to contact Dr. Phil. If you are having blind athlete/guide conflict however you may get better advice coming to someone that has been in these shoes. :)  LOL

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